Dream’s Wings: Story about about Roberto Bartini — the famous scientist, aircraft designer and philosopher

Alexander Fedorov
17 min readMar 19, 2020


The universe exists inside me inseparably. The whole world is reflected in me like in a spherical mirror… ( Roberto Bartini)

Moscow. The Kutuzov Prospekt. Gloomy high buildings in a Stalin-style architecture. The camera is slowly moving down the street. It is going inside one of the houses, going up the stairs. Coming up to the door…

The corridor. The room with the curtained windows, dim lamp, bookshelves and airplane models. Fantasy pictures on the walls…

A wrinkled hand switches on the light in the study. Accompanied by the sound of shuffling feet the camera follows a man into the bathroom. There is a faded reflection of an old man’s face. Water is running from a tap. Suddenly the camera loses the balance and falls down. Sound of a fall of a man’s body. Lifeless hand on the floor…

We can hear the phonogram of different voices and sounds

(Roberto! Dove vai? … Sounds of the music box… Roberto, torno!..

Get up when the KGB officer is talking to you! … I wanted to tell you… You have to speed up!… I’m a Russian potato… Roberto!

… Red planes must fly faster than black ones…) The camera approaches mirror again. There is a face of a teenager of 12–14 years old. Bright flash of light…A short montage of shots and photographs (airplanes, Mussolini, a red flag, war documentary, a microscope, a mechanical doll, monorail train, etc.). 2 …Adriatic seaside. The view of a town stretching along the sea. Yachts, rocking on the waves. A boy is building sandcastles… A luxurious mansion of the baron Ludovico. The park, buried in foliage…The bright spots of flowerbeds. A kite in the sky…The boy is playing in the garden… Riding a big black dog…

“Perhaps, one could write a novel about Bartini. A novel so interesting that it could compete with the story of Count Monte Cristo. He was born in the town of Feume, at that time an Austria-Hungarian town. His father was a very wealthy man. They lived in a luxurious mansion, surrounded by a beautiful garden. Peacocks were walking proudly along the neat paths. Waterfalls. Small grottoes. And sounds of music: Wagner, Beethoven, Verdi…

Bartini’s motherdonna Paola fine played the piano. His hair was red. However, people got used to see his black hair. He just dyed it black. For some reason, he was very scared of having gray hair… He dressed quietly. Gray coat. Simple suit. By the way, they couldn’t find a good suit for his funeral. So, they had to buy the new one. He had always been living on lofty spiritual interests… His birth is shrouded in mystery. People said that Donna Paola was not his mother, but a foster mother. Anyway, this secret cannot be unraveled now”.

Vladimir Bartini (Roberto Bartini’s son):

“People were telling different stories about my father. Some said, that he was a natural son of baron Bartini. Other people insisted that he was a gardener’s son.” As to confirm these words a kind of melodrama cartoon appears on the screen: a gardener, bringing a baby to the baron…A baroness, gently dandling the baby, etc. Leonid Fortinov: “It is all nonsense. And has no particular importance.

Anyway, Bartini was growing as a real baron’s son, he was denied nothing. He was a healthy boy, was going in for sports. In 1912 he participated in the Olympic Games in diving and swimming. I remember Bartini told me that as a child he saw the demonstration flying of a Russian pilot. He was delighted by this show. Perhaps it’s at that moment that he decided to make aviation his profession. In a few years Bartini graduated from aviation school”.

These words are accompanied by the documentary of those times. Air battles. Land attacks. Columns of war prisoners. Workers’ strikes in Russia. Crowds of people with red flags…

At the age of 12–13 Bartini began to take an interest in the philosophers of the Renaissance. A little later he read Marx’s “The Capital” in German. When 15 his father gave him a plane as a present. Bartini recalled, that in 1914 while he was flying over Rome he felt that the plane was falling down. The plane really did crash, but fortunately, Roberto survived. He had a broken toe and a knocked out tooth. He got off lightly…

Bartini was dreaming about the aviation. But he was called up to the Austria-Hungarian army and sent to the Russian front. Defending the honor of his comrade Bartini had a fight with an officer. It came to the guns. Roberto fired first , and the bullet killed the lieutenant. So Bartini was arrested and was waiting for the court martial. But at that time a famous general Brusilov break through began. Bartini was captured by the Russian troops.

Together with other prisoners he was taken to the Far East camp. The train was going to the Far East for many days. Out of the wagon window Bartini was watching the big strange country… He told me once: “Italy is a poor country, it has not much land suitable for plough-fields. It’s amazingly ironic, that Russian population, having all that rich land, is so poor.”

He learnt the Russian language during the four years of captivity. Then war prisoners were sent to Shanghai. He spoke no word of Chinese. Had no documents. But some freight handlers gave him a shelter. Bartini told me about it and said: “I was very strong back then. I am OK even now here, touch my muscles”…

In short, every day Bartini was carrying heavy sacks with rice. He worked just for food. Then the Chinese learnt that Bartini could drive a car. A driver in China those days was someone like an astronaut. So Bartini changed jobs and became a driver. In the end, when he got a chance he came back to his motherland, went to Milan and studied at the aircraft faculty of the university there…”.

“It is no wonder that Bartini was enthusiastic about the idea of the world revolution and naively believed in communist rightness. At that time a lot of people thought that communism was really a better future of the mankind, the deliverance from inequality and injustice of life. So 4 after the captivity Bartini returned to his motherland as a completely new person, so to speak. His native town, Feume, belonged to Italy after the war.” Italy. The 1920s.

Documentary with Mussolini. Parades of Facsists. Documentary with Stalin and Trotsky. Parades of sportsmen on the Red Square…

He became the member of communist party in 1921. It was then that he decided to break off with his past. He never came back to the baron’s estate…

A little later Bartini headed the group of “bodyguards” for the Russian delegation at the international conference in Genoa. By the way, there he met a notorious terrorist Boris Savinkov and Rasputin’s murderer-prince Yusupov. It’s a pity I didn’t ask him to tell me more about it. It should have been and interesting story…

Bartini got a task to prevent the attempt on the Russian delegation’s life during the negotiations in Genoa. He told me that for that occasion he was given some money from the party’s fund and dressed him in the latest fashion….

From Genoa Bartini went to Berlin. He had to stay there longer than he was going to because of the appendicitis operation. From there he got to Petersburg. It was in the end of 1923.

That’s when his new 50 years long life in Russia began. At first they wanted to recruit him to work as a secret agent. But he was the most unsuitable person for that type of work. He was addicted to aviation. In 1929 Bartini was one of the team that prepared the plane for the flight to America across the North Pole. Soon he became the head of the designer’s office. He was given a car as a reward for his successful projects. But he was a person for whom material goods did not matter. And he gave his car to the army. In 1934 Bartini’s father died and Roberto got an enormous inheritance. This time too, he handed the money over to the international organization that helped revolutionists…”

“After his father’s death Bartini got a huge inheritance-several million dollars. He donated all the money to the international organization of aid for revolution”. Ksenia Itskhakova: “In 1923 after the graduation from Milan Institute, Bartini, under the Italian communist party orders, left for Moscow to assist the Russian aviation. That’s when he vowed that red planes 5 would fly faster than black ones…

I often asked myself — why he decided to emigrate to the USSR. Because he hated fascism? Because he sincerely believed in communist ideals? Or maybe because it seemed to him that he would be able to realize his gigantic creative plans in Russia?” These words accompany photographs and documentary made in the USSR in the 1920s. Huge building sights of new plants and dams. Airplanes, soaring up to the sky.

“Bartini’s aircraft projects are astonishing even today. His planes, built in the 1930s were in fact the fastest in the world. His ideas were frequently used by other designers. When Antonov needed the project of a rising floor for “Antei”, Bartini gave all the papers to him just like that, “for free”…

Bartini thought that the jet aircraft has already reached the limits of its recourses, its improvement has no sense, and its main drawback was the huge areas of airdromes. That’s when he got the idea of a “screenplane”-an airplane that can land on water, on the roof of a building, on a field or highway…”.

There is a montage of photographs of airplanes, built by Bartini’s design (Stal-6, DAR, EP-2, DB-240), and drawings of his projects that were never realized.

“Indeed, Bartini’s career in the USSR took the most favourable turn at the beginning. He became the head of the aircraft designers’ office in 1929. He got a general’s military rank in early 30s. In 1933 his plane Stal-6 successfully passed the test at the record speed for that time-450 kilometers per hour.

In 1934 Bartini designed the plane Stal-8 at the rate of 630 kilometers per hour. Two years later at the aircraft exhibition in Paris specialists from all over the world admired Bartini’s novelty-Stal-7 with the unique flight range of 5000km. And suddenly an unexpected arrest of Bartini in 1938. Imprisonment and almost ten years of exile…”

Documentary of Stalin. War parades. Crowds of people stigmatizing “public enemies”. Mass hysteria of meetings and marches.

“Bartini did not like to speak about that time. Of course I knew about his detention and imprisonment. Bartini thought that the major tragedy of that period of time was that people were depended upon the half-educated dictators.

We had an agreement with him that we wouldn’t rummage in biographies. Extra information could have done harm. Once I asked him: “Is it possible to suggest that most of your misfortunes happened because you had not agreed to become a second Zorge, that is to spy for the Kremlin?”

Bartini answered: “Why did I have to be the second Zorge? I should have been the first Bartini in that case. I know more foreign languages than he did”… Bartini was denounced in 1937, but arrested just in the beginning of 1938. When marshal Tukhachevsky was imprisoned everybody who worked with him was arrested, too. And Bartini was one of them. They beat him in prison, but he still wrote his formulas in a cell…

However he never spoke badly of Stalin. Soon after Bartini’s arrest Stalin understood that the Soviet industry would inevitably lose the competition with the Western countries without such talented engineers. It was like this. The plane designed by Bartini, set in 1938 the world’s record in flight range.

Stalin was reported about it. He asked: “Where’s the designer?”. — “He’s in prison, comrade Stalin”. “Let him work”. So after the order from the Kremlin Bartini became an engineer-convict. He was in charge of the designers’ office in a strictly guarded zone of the aircraft plant in Taganrog. But even under such practically prison-like conditions Bartini worked out many unique projects of new planes…”

“Bartini spent in a tiny prison cell 100 days. But even there he didn’t lose all interest. After many of his demands, he was finally given a pencil and paper and he wrote a letter to Stalin. He didn’t beg for mercy. He wrote that without aviation Russia would lose the modern war… Strange though as it may seem, but the letter was mailed. Bartini was called to Beria’s office. Beria patted him on the shoulder, led to the blackboard, and gave piece of chalk: “Prove it! If you prove that you’re right, your life will be saved.”

That’s how Bartini started working at the aviation plant in Taganrog. He soon made Stalin’s regime out. Roberto had a small portrait of Stalin, about the size of a notebook. He showed it to me like this: closed half of Stalin’s face and when he opened it again, Stalin turned into…the demon with horns. This episode speaks volumes of his attitude to Stalin…”.

Photos and documentary of life in Taganrog and the USSR in late 1940s — 50s.

“I first met Bartini after I graduated from the Institute and came to work at the aircraft plant. First thing that caught my eye was his black curly hair. He looked young. A shirt with a lose tie. But it didn’t create an impression of slovenliness. His accent showed itself just when he got excited or nervous.

“You have fingers of a musician, — Bartini said to me when we first met, — I will call you maestro.” Tatiana Morozova: “He was handsome even then. You could tell by his face the man was extraordinary. You could see he was the Personality… He had never spoken badly about people. He was very tactful. Was he happy? In his work-yes, he was. But in private life — I don’t know… Anyway, he got married rather late-when he was about forty. His wife Helen was Swedish. She could not have children.

Once while on vacation in the Crimea Bartini had an affair with a waitress (Italian-hot blood!). Soon he came back home. And then one day the waitress showed up in Bartini’s flat with a baby in her hands. She put it on the sofa, said that she by no means could support the baby, and went home to the Crimea. Bartini’s wife, instead of screaming and making scenes of jealousy, was very happy to keep the baby. They called the boy Gera. He was just about two years old when Bartini was arrested…

At that time many people were arrested. Such well-known aviation engineers like Tupolev and Korolev were imprisoned…”.

“Besides his passion for science and aircraft, Bartini, like a true Italian, was fond of women. He considered a woman to be a goddess. But this goddess needs to be waken up, he used to say. If a man makes a woman run food shopping, do the cooking and laundry all day long, she will become a slave. On the other hand, if treated with love and respect, any woman can become a heavenly creature. Bartini worshiped women. He said: “If someone is talking bad about women, don’t believe him.”

In 1929 in Sevastopol he fell in love with a young doctor. An he coached a sport team in diving and swimming there. One day they were walking along the seashore with his team and saw a barge with a big crane in the water. Someone asked: “Can you jump from this crane in water?” Bartini reckoned the height: about 35 meters: “Why not? But what for?” And 8 here he heard a whisper behind his back: “He’s afraid. He’s scared to do it.”

Bartini flew into a temper ,dived into the sea and swam to the barge. He climbed to the top of the crane. Looked down and felt dizzy at the height. But when he looked at the shore he saw a crowd of spectators and he knew the SHE was there, too. Bartini realized that it was too late to retreat now and jumped. He was met with applauds on the land. People tossed him in the air and cried “hurray!” After that jump he won the woman’s affection. One of his girlfriends living in Taganrog in the middle of the 50s had his son-Bartinijunior, who had to conceal his father’s name for many years. Later I learnt that he had also a girlfriend much younger that he. He wrote his will for her”.

“At first he lived inside the plant’s territory and had no permission to go to town. Everywhere he went he was followed by supervisors. However his Italian blood made itself felt and soon a woman working at the plant gave birth to his son. I have met him. He looks amazingly like his father…

But Bartini’s elder son Gera had a tragic lot. After Bartini’s arrest his mother had to move from their flat to a small room in the basement. They barely made the both ends meet. After finishing school Gera entered the Institute. In his summer break he went to the mountains — to Tien Shan. He was fond of mountaineering. During one of the ascents Gera fell from the rock and died…

Helen Bartini went to see her son’s grave and never returned home. She died in Tashkent…but Gera had a son — Oleg, Bartini’s grandson. He grew up and became a physicist…”.

“Certainly after so many years of living in the Soviet Union Roberto Bartini lost his political illusions that carried him to the “communist paradise” on the dream’s wings. However he had to keep to the rules of the game in public till his last days. Unlike the academic Sakharov or the writer Solzhenitzyn, he was not an undisguised dissident. His “different thinking” revealed itself in a free flight of creativeness, in his work and his hobby painting. Frames of Bartini’s drawings: dyeing out campfire in the woods, a prisoner behind the barbed wire, a deer by the mountain lake, lovers in the grass…

“I have visited Bartini in his flat. And I was struck that both the walls and curtains in the room were dark blues. There was no TV set- just the radio. He didn’t really like television. Partly because there was something wrong with his eyes. Bright light irritated him. He used to say that television distracted him and music on the radio helped to think.

Bartini had a big library. I.Newton in English, Leonardo da Vinci in Italian. Mostly there were science books. He didn’t read belle-lettres. He had no time for it. And he cherished every minute. By the way, he left his books to the school for gifted children. So that they would arouse their talents. He did not go to the theatre. Not in Taganrog, at least. I said once that there appeared too many Russian actors recently. And he replied: “Why? Did somebody count how many of them would be enough?”.

Bartini liked restaurants. During his first years of living in Russia he preferred good wines. Later he got used to the traditional Russian alcohol drink-vodka. Ones he together with his friend spent 700 rubles in a restaurant. It was big money for this time…

I remember one of his paintings on the wall. Bartini told me that he put some music into code in this picture. He wanted me to guess the tune. I stared at the picture but heard nothing. Then suddenly I began to hear something, there was a tune in my head. I still don’t know-whether there was something in the picture or he had a telepathic power”.

When I first came to Bartini’s apartment I noticed the dark-blue curtains. Walls were painted navy blue too. Bookshelves. The desk. The gas stove in the kitchen was always on. He, a Southerner, was always cold in Russia. A blue enamel teapot on the table. Different cups and saucers. There were grapes in the vase. A cake, but in big slices. A water-color picture over the table: a small hare with ears laid back resembling the letter “B” and a malicious coiling dragon, looking like letters “YaK”. In a second “YaK” will eat the hare “B”. Bartini explained to me that it was an allegory, inspired by the attempt of his bosses to blend the designer’s office of Bartini with the bigger aviafirm of Yakovlev.

There were a lot of his paintings on the walls. I remember one of them. The side-view of Bartini’s silhouette. And the detail of prison’s bars. On the other side of the bars-crossing rays of light and naked Eve, dropping an apple…Another picture portrayed an airplane taking off from the wet concrete landing strip…

Half of the wall was covered with the curtain. Bartini opened it up and there were drawings of naked women. Many of them. Water colours have faded. I also noticed that women’s bosoms were drawn like with the pair of compasses. Here, I guess, his mathematical mind showed…

“Do you like it? -Bartini asked me. — it’s not blameworthy in Italy. But not acceptable in Russia…”

On the screen: reproductions of pictures and photos of the official Soviet art of the 1960s- 1970s. Dull sexless creatures wearing clothes of workers and peasants, communist party congresses, enthusiasm of masses, portraits of state leaders…

“Bartini liked dwelling on the future of the mankind, on the environmental problems. He hoped that someday people would get rid of all kinds of weapon. With many of his ideas he shared in his unpublished cinema novel “The Chain”.

Bartini told me once: “If people do away with nuclear, biological, chemical and other kinds of weapon then there would be another major task left- to shovel out all the garbage that we produced during several thousand years of existence”.

As for his science work, I practically forced Bartini to publish one of his brilliant inventions in physics. But he still never drew up papers for the doctor’s degree. Bartini was very educated. He could speak seven languages and could read in two more. For example, they spoke several languages with marshal Tukhachevsky. He had a good understanding of music, drew beautifully, wrote prose and poems. Bartini believed in rest as a change of occupation. When he turned 75 he had 18 months of unused vacations. He asked the Minister of Aviation for the money compensation. But Minister was greedy and paid him just for 4 months…

Ones Bartini came to the Ministry in the rumpled velvet trousers. Minister called an a accountant and ask: “What Bartini’s salary was?”. It was 500 rubles. The minister said: “Add 50 rubles to that sum — for him to buy the new trousers”…

Bartini rarely laughed or joked. Probably years of imprisonment were telling on him…He could speak of complicated things (for instance, of his theory of six-dimensional world) with simple words. He was a real intellectual. He didn’t seek to see bad traits in people. He was a scientist, and a scientist is an analyst. He understood that everybody could make a mistake. And he believed that every person is talented in his own way. You just have to find the specialization where the personality can fully express itself. He never humiliated an interlocutor by patronizing 11 or lecturing tone. He did not remember people’s patronymic names though, he thought that it was a waste of memory.

Once in Moscow we drove to pick him up at Kutuzov Prospekt. Bartini came out of the house. Do you think he hurried to the car? No, first he came up to the yard-sweeper, shook hands with him and said: “Thanks you, you are doing one of the most important jobs in the world”.

“Bartini thought that space influences people very much. Every eleven years all atoms that form a human body change for the new ones… “So in 11 years will it be me or not?” — Bartini asked me. I asked him if he missed Italy sometimes, if he would like to go to his native town once. He answered: “Is Bartini an Italian? Science says ,no. If you take a person like a biological specimen, like a collection of cells, then during the years I have lived in Russia my cells changed at least three times. So what you see is not Italian olives, it’s a Russian potato”.

“Bartini said that he had three “Nos”. No feeling of pain. No feeling of hunger. And no fear of physical pain. He could take a pin, prick a finger — and not a muscle in his face moved. As a child he fell ill with some disease, that left such an impact. But at the same time Bartini was very reserved. But he was afraid his whole life. 1937 was a shock for him. He was afraid that they would kill him”. On the screen: close-ups of Bartini’s pictures appear again. His soul, his fears and pain, his love and dreams are all there.

“We have brilliant ideas, — Bartini told me, — but they are misrepresented in practice. However these ideas were very valuable for other countries. That’s why people in America, Germany and other countries obtained such social rights, that Russian people never had and still don’t have. So, socialism is in Sweden. We never had any socialism.”

“Bartini died unexpectedly on the 5th of December — back then it was a holiday. When the driver came to pick him up in the morning to take him to work, Bartini was dead. They say that Bartini always kept his diary on the table. But it was not there when they opened the door. Supposedly, someone had visited his flat after his death. During his last years Roberto had a girlfriend whom he, to tell the truth, was passing off as his foster daughter. Maybe, it was she who took this diary”.

…Adriatic seaside. The view of a town stretching along the sea. Yachts, rocking on the waves. A boy is building sandcastles. A kite in the sky…

Alexander Fedorov, 2004

Financial support for this scenario: The IDFA Bertha Fund, formerly known as the Jan Vrijman Fund (Holland)

Originally published at https://zen.yandex.ru.



Alexander Fedorov

Film Critic and Film Historian